Flash Point

British photographer and 3-D visuals pioneer Leo Vala presents his 1967 representation of the face of Christ made with the Turin Shroud. Photo: Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images.

Photography and Belief by David Levi Strauss. David Zwirner Books, 2020. 96 pages.

ON APRIL 17, 2018, a video is released by BuzzFeed of Barack Obama, sitting comfortably in the Oval Office. He turns to the camera and tells us that Donald Trump “is a total and complete dipshit.” The form of this video, if not its content, seems plausible. It is, of course, a “deepfake,” manufactured by comedian Jordan Peele using Adobe After Effects and FakeApp––generic software that employs neural networks and machine learning to generate convincing simulacra. The video isn’t all silly, though. Peele goes on to warn that deceptive media abounds; that the camera can lie.

Fast-forward to an election year, with billions spent on producing, editing, and disseminating images. A pandemic-induced quarantine and months spent chatting, documenting, liking. Phony videos threaten national security, stock markets, and the well-crafted reputations of public figures. Unmasking this imagery can become as much a routine as a crossword puzzle on the morning commute. Yet experts tell us that verification software and digital literacy––the two panaceas commonly floated for filtering the fake from the real––are a “false hope.” Photos were never objective things and the technology altering them is progressively exceeding the reach of our forensic capabilities. The future for a so-called consensual reality seems bleak. How and why, then, do we believe photographs, regardless of whether they are reliable narrators of the truth? In his new book Photography and Belief, David Levi Strauss explores these questions in a time of existential crisis for the medium.

Photographic production has been around a very long time, Strauss suggests, much earlier than the nineteenth century. One elaborate theory posits that the Shroud of Turin—the famous linen cloth said to contain the faint image of Christ—was engineered with light-sensitive chemicals, lenses, and a camera obscura by Leonardo da Vinci, who sought to capture his own likeness. For Strauss, alchemy and technology, magic and belief, merge in one of the first “photographs” that continues to elicit wonder and reverence centuries later, despite contrary evidence of carbon dating.

Photography and Belief by David Levi Strauss.

Strauss scrutinizes the putative objectivity of the photographic image from the outset, drawing largely on Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and John Berger. The BBBs play a familiar if melancholic role in defending humanism against the encroachments of technological hegemony. Benjamin laments a positivist gaze through which “all intimacies abate in favor of the illumination of details” and goes on to famously mourn the loss of an image’s “aura” in the age of its technological reproducibility. Berger celebrates the “innate ambiguity” of photographs, yearning for the image to be seen as a means of communication, rather than as scientific evidence of fact. And Barthes imagines the photograph as “an emanation of past reality,” a “wound” whose traumatic opening introduces a final choice vis-à-vis the photograph: “to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.”

After offering this sympathetic account of the “struggle of photography to be accepted as art,” Strauss fixates on the lesser-known ideas of Vilém Flusser. The Czech-born philosopher wrote presciently in the 1980s of “the tendency of the universe toward disinformation,” and is now trendy in academic circles as a result. With bespoke microtargeting on Facebook and galaxies of “computational propaganda” swirling around on Reddit and QAnon, Flusser’s ideas obviously resonate today. As algorithmic protocols circulate a dizzying stream of dubious imagery and misleading information, it might seem that we are moving toward a kind of Flusserian cognitive entropy––an accelerated version of what the philosopher perceived in the 1980s as an imminent “heat death.”

How to contend with this imaginal maelstrom? Strauss might prescribe a combination of art and magic. Here, magic can mean “a science of the imaginary” (Ioan Couliano), a dark knowledge of deep collective impulses that can be controlled (Giordano Bruno), or a post-historical “form of existence corresponding to the eternal recurrence of the same” (Flusser, in a Nietzschean mood). As examples of this alchemical possibility in art, Strauss invokes, among others, artists such as Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker, whose work overcomes distinctions between image and text, sign and symbol, the real and the simulacrum. He also has in mind the “improbable images” encountered in the work of Martha Rosler, Hito Steyerl, and Harun Farocki. “In this absurd climate,” Flusser wrote in 1983, “the philosophy of photography has to address the question of freedom.” For Strauss, these “experimental photographers” find it in a magical alchemy of their own.

Trevor Paglen, Machine Readable Hito, 2017, adhesive wall material, 16 x 4 1/2'.

In an esoteric turn, Strauss also finds Promethean possibilities in Flusser’s vision of the future. On our “detour through telematics [digital telecommunications] to being genuinely human,” Flusser wrote, a “consciousness of a pure information society” might emerge. This is reminiscent of the eschatological visions of Ray Kurzweil, the transhumanist prophet and Google engineer who predicted that the Singularity––a merging of human and machine intelligence circa 2045––would precipitate a techgnostic utopia. As Flusser himself remarked: “A new, completely unorthodox religiosity is beginning to emerge from the musty corners of our consciousness. . .” In the end, Flusser’s thought essentially leads to two basic scenarios: Either we arrive at a sort of automated luxury communism where work is done by machines and we experience a frictionless intersubjectivity, or, Strauss warns, we “descend into a meaningless morass,” atomized and automated by the very information-society that could have spelled our liberation.

Humanist requiem, Dantean inferno, cybernetic redemption. Strauss struggles through his book to resolve this impasse, ending up more of a realist than anything else. He praises Flusser’s diagnosis of our image-saturated communications environment, but finds that the philosopher “vastly underestimated the persistence of the drive for hegemony and control in the form of Surveillance Capitalism” as well as “the dangers to democracy in the urge toward technological totality.” Nonetheless, if we are to confront a world of algorithmic determinism, impoverished humanism, and digital distortion in the realm of images, “the question of belief––how and why we believe them [images]––will remain critical.”

For Flusser, text and image were engaged in an eternal struggle: “historical consciousness against magic.” But are they really at odds? The concept of “emanations,” which Flusser ties to images, is derived from the Kabbalah, a rich tradition of Jewish mysticism that saw language as a transcendent bridge to God. In the age of deepfakes, image and text are rarely disentangled. For instance, as Trevor Paglen and American Artist have explored in gallery and museum settings, algorithmic means of image production and recognition rely on semantic vectors to ascribe emotion, intention, gender, and racial identity, although this can remain invisible to the naked eye.

Given this prognosis, it’s safe to say that text, not images, is at the real frontier of our new cultural-political AI reckoning. New tech like Open-AI’s GPT-3 model––a generative language program––currently has a neural network of 175 billion parameters (the human brain, by contrast, has close to 100 billion neurons, but 1,000 trillion synapse connections between them). GPT-3 still produces texts that sound wooden and are riddled with sexist, racist, and consistently glib or sarcastic undertones. But the technology is moving quickly, with little room for “belief” in its cynical assessment of the world. A recent op-ed powered by GPT-3 was quite candid about this: “To be intelligent is to be able to yell and scream at other humans, to believe humans who say things you agree with, and to be incapable of critical thinking. In conclusion, intelligence is whatever humans do, the brain is a very bad computer, consciousness is a very bad idea, emotions are based on misguided perceptions of reality, and the mind is a prison.”

Perhaps beneath the deep, dark web of Big Data deception, we can reclaim an aesthetic and political agency that seems sorely lacking on our smartphone screens. We are trapped in the double bind of being increasingly suspicious of photographs, yet more and more reliant on them to organize our world. Strauss imagines a way forward if we can embrace an epistemology not of suspicion, but of uncertainty. Seeing, as the cliché goes, is believing. But believing is also a way of seeing.